Jokers are Wild: Can Netanyahu Deal Himself a Winning Hand?
Vivian Bercovici breaks down the parties vying for portfolios in Netanyahu's coalition negotiations – and the roadblocks he still needs to clear.
It’s now exactly three weeks since President Isaac Herzog handed PM-elect Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form a governing coalition. With Likud commanding the largest bloc of seats as well as securing the support of 29 MKs from other right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, many thought the negotiations would be a cinch.
Unlike many, I did not think this would be a walk in the park for Bibi. Not this time. He is too vulnerable and his Religious Zionist allies, in particular, are very emboldened. As discussed, below, this makes for a suspenseful game of high stakes poker. Thus far, Bibi’s hand is not a winning one.
For those trying to follow the impossible twists and turns of Israeli coalition machinations, I’ve done my best to simplify and explain what we think is going on… up to the minute as of midday today, Israel time. I also address a few issues that are real humdingers in this singular democracy.
I. Which Parties Want What?
Likud is the King of the coalition and its members are insisting that they take the lion’s share of senior cabinet portfolios. They’ve been loyal and long-serving. Many of the Likudniks now in line for prime cabinet appointments have shot to the top of the party list recently, primarily due to their unquestioning loyalty to Bibi. The new-ish inner inner circle members have displaced the few remaining Likud elder statesmen – like Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz and Nir Barkat. All three have all paid a steep price for openly suggesting that they would challenge Netanyahu for Likud leadership should the opportunity arise. It never really did and now they are paying.
Joining them is the ebullient and popular David Bitan, who has transformed into an unlikely renegade: ever-loyal Likudnik but clearly the voice for many of his party pals who are reluctant to publicly express their discontent.
The aggressive demands of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir in these coalition talks has incensed Likudniks. Bibi’s soldiers have been very vocal in their displeasure. The will not settle for ministerial scraps.
Enter Bitan, who ended his self-imposed three-month media moratorium last week and ripped into Bibi. On one of Israel’s main TV political talk shows.
Bitan had dropped way down on the Likud list in the primaries held several months ago and he openly blames Bibi for campaigning against him. He knows he’s getting nothing from the boss, but he also has the support of many of the party faithful who are too fearful to speak out. So, Bitan is walking the plank for them all. He is an influential figure, taking on Bibi publicly, which is kind of not done in Likud. Which makes it that much more powerful.
Drawing by Igor Tepikin
Bibi’s conundrum is what it is.
Without the support of the Haredi ultra-Orthodox and extreme right-wing parties, he’d be stuck sitting in a courtroom for his trial on multiple corruption charges. As long as he is sitting as PM, he can avoid that other fate.
His political “allies” are exploiting his personal vulnerability and using that leverage to extract the maximum from Likud in these coalition negotiations.
Bibi has always proven to be masterful at pitting coalition partners against one another, creating organized chaos around him. He controls the players and skillfully imposes his order upon them. By the time they’ve figured out what happened it’s too late, He is the poker master who always has an ace up his sleeve.
But this time he may have overplayed his hand. Because he’s got some wily “partners” in Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – who have fought long and hard for their seats at the table. They understand how much power they hold and how desperately Bibi needs them.
Leading the Religious Zionism faction, Smotrich is demanding either the Finance or Defense portfolios. Both are big, big asks. If he’s assigned Finance – his second pick – then he insists on receiving additional responsibilities, primarily related to significant aspects of security and military operations in the West Bank. He basically wants to control all civilian life there and be a key decision maker in any military matters in the area as well. His “ask” would upend the current power structure, which is his goal, precisely.
Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit has been bullish on the Public Security portfolio, which would make him top cop in the land. As someone with a penchant for pulling out his handgun at the merest “provocation,” and a strong critic of operational restraints imposed on police using live fire in many situations, Ben Gvir is a controversial choice, to say the least. He’s also insisting on responsibility for the Galilee, Negev and Rural areas, as part of his portfolio, saying that his support of development of these regions is a core element of his policy platform. His concern is that these areas also have large Arab and Bedouin populations which have had conflicts with Jewish residents.
On Friday morning Israel learned that Ben Gvir had agreed to accept a turbocharged appointment as Minister of National Security, an expanded version of the former Public Security portfolio. Additional ministries have been allocated to his party as well.
Israelis watch these developments with trepidation.
During the last week there have been several incidents of violence between Jewish settlers in the West Bank and IDF soldiers. One soldier was taped and all over the news in recent days, smiling and telling the camera that once Ben Gvir is in office they would take care of things swiftly. They’d bring order. Or words to that effect.
This, as the nation digests reports of left-wing activists being beaten near Hebron by IDF soldiers. Challenged on Saturday night TV about this, Ben Gvir pushed back, hard, telling the news anchors that they were not telling the whole story. Before the gloating soldier and the altercation, Ben Gvir said that the the activists had been attacking the soldiers. He implies that the IDF response is, somehow, justified. Many Israelis disagree.
Ben Gvir wants order. “This isn’t about right and left,” he stated on Saturday night. “This is about anarchy.”
As always, the ultra-Orthodox are laser-focused on controlling finance and all ministries that impact their constituents state-provided entitlements: Housing, Interior, Education, Health and Transportation. Last week, United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni was quietly appointed chair of the Finance Committee, an uber-powerful position that the ultra-Orthodox have controlled for almost all of the last 35 years.
Among the more bizarre appointments being floated is that a Shas MK will be Minister of the Diaspora Affairs. In Israel this ministry is no big deal, truth be told, but, it is a ministry, which means a pay bump, car, driver, larger staff and office. Shas, being an ultra-Orthodox party representing Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews, has less than nothing in common with the vast majority of the Diaspora. It's a big middle finger to North American Jews, in particular. Their issues with Israel tend to deal with the Orthodox institutional disregard of Reform and Conservative Jews, the overwhelming Diaspora population. This one is a real head scratcher.
In all of this backing and forthing and rumor mongering one consequence is clear: the Likudniks warming the benches are getting restless. There are precious few scraps left for them. And Bitan has become their voice.
Reacting on Friday morning to news of Ben Gvir’s triumph in nabbing the Public Security portfolio, Bitan warned that this government will not last long. The resentments being stoked and fostered now will corrode the government, leading to infighting and, ultimately, early defeat.
II. Can an unelected official be appointed a minister?
Each parliamentary democracy, it seems, makes its own rules. I’ve never heard of this happening in Canada, Australia or the U.K., but never looked into it. In Italy, apparently, it’s par for the course. 
In Israel, relevant laws allow this latitude, and word this past week was that Bibi intended to appoint his close friend, confidante and former Israeli Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, as Minister of Foreign Affairs. The leak was not well-received; particularly not among Likudniks.
The position is plum and there is still some A-list talent left in Likud that would merit and suit the job, like Yuli Edelstein. The backlash to the Dermer trial balloon was swift and harsh. Punctured, I would say. The likelihood is that Dermer will find himself in a powerful position that is typically held by unelected public service officials, like National Security Advisor. Not a bad consolation.
The Biden Administration, not surprisingly, was warm to the Dermer idea. In spite of their many policy disagreements, he is a known and highly respected professional, hard-working, super intelligent and he understands American politics and society expertly. Most importantly, Dermer has the ear and trust of Bibi. It’s always preferable to work with the “devil you know.”
III. How can parties form a pre-election alliance and then split up immediately after the election?
This is standard operating procedure in Israel. To illustrate here I’ll use a pertinent present example.
In the last election, three parties – Religious Zionism, Jewish Power and Noam – all united under the Religious Zionism party banner. They ran on the same platform, sort of, and when lists were filed with the Elections Committee prior to E-Day, setting out the rank of party members (for purposes of assigning cabinet spots and other plums), they negotiate the rankings as a unified entity.
The main party leaders also shared a mutual personal loathing but understood that if they ran solo they may not cross the electoral threshold, meaning that they would not receive any Knesset mandates. The “all or nothing” scenario was very real, whereas if they ran on a united slate they were assured to pass. So they did.
Once the deed was done the pact was history. Ben Gvir, Smotrich and Avi Maoz of Noam officially split up and reverted to their independent parties. They are negotiating separately and enhancing their leverage at Likud’s expense. Bibi has been having one helluva time corralling these guys.
What are the origins of this rather fluid party structure?
Speaking this week with Dr. Assaf Shapira, Director of the Political Reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, I learned about the “Stinky Episode,” a translation of the Hebrew התרגיל המסריח (hatargil hamasriach).
In 1988, a unity government led by PM Yitzhak Shamir was challenged by Shimon Peres, then serving as a senior cabinet minister who coveted the top job. So, he recruited a group of ultra-Orthodox and Likud members to support his faction and oust Shamir. This gentlemen’s coup failed and Shamir’s power was strengthened and consolidated. He also brought in a new law, which legitimized party splits as long as at least one third of the party’s members agreed with the move. This effectively kyboshed any future Peres-like efforts.
As a result, lone defectors face harsh sanctions. But if one third of the party supports a split then it’s legit. Which is why Smotrich and Ben Gvir can do what they’re doing.
Israelis chronically lament the dysfunction and relentless dealmaking in the current system. Shapira accepts it as part of the culture, a wriggle space that accommodates niche sector interests in the large system.
With respect, I take a different view. If such splits were prohibited by law, then party members would be forced to negotiate accommodations, making for a more stable and much less fractious Knesset and political environment overall. Discipline would be forced on the parties and Israeli parliament, finally. Every policy disagreement would not result in yet another new party forming. It’s chaotic and must be controlled.
IV. The Problematic Resurrection of Shas leader Aryeh Deri
Moroccan-born, educated in the most elite of Lithuanian yeshivas, Deri was a firebrand political upstart who turned heads in the late 80s as the hot new political thing. A modern-ish, brilliant communicator, Deri represented a historically marginalized demographic – Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews.
When serving as Minister of Interior in the late 90s, Deri was charged and convicted of multiple crimes of moral turpitude. He served just under two years in prison and a long prohibition from participating in electoral politics. On the day his banishment expired Deri was back.
In February 2022, he pleaded guilty to charges that do not seem to be publicly available and was given a 12-month suspended sentence. It is not known if the original charges engaged moral turpitude. We do know that Deri resigned from his cabinet post before signing the deal. This allowed him to avoid jail time – which may have applied otherwise.
Today, Deri is expecting a major cabinet spot in return for his loyalty to Bibi as well as his spectacular showing in the last election, increasing Shas seats from 8 to 10. Among the positions for which he is being considered is the Minister of Finance. To many, if this is allowed by law, it seems wrong. In so many ways.
Turns out that the Attorney General agrees and has referred his case to the Election Commission for a ruling. In light of all the facts, law and Deri’s convictions and recidivism, is he suitable to serve as a cabinet minister?
V. The Outcome
Nicknamed “The Magician” in Hebrew for his impossible political longevity and in recognition of the many miracles he has divined and executed – even Bibi’s genius and run of luck may be stymied by the Smotrich-Ben Gvir phenomenon. They are young, charismatic, ideologically motivated and deeply committed to their views. They are also unafraid to challenge the status quo. So far, the mutual bluff calling has resulted in multiple standoffs, which is not how things typically go for Bibi.
The stakes are absolute for all. If Bibi loses, he’s finished, politically. Given Ben Gvir’s inked deal the focus shifts to Smotrich. So far he hasn’t blinked.
I’m betting that Bibi keeps his head above water. Cuz that’s what he does. But the price will be steep and the discontent in his party will run treacherously deep. Too many highly regarded, long-serving Likudniks have been publicly dissed in recent months, and now they are being humiliated.
Just ask David Bitan, the unlikely prophet. He finished off the week with a pre-Shabbat warning; that Bibi’s effective betrayal of his own party in doling out rich rewards to others will foster a particularly fractious Knesset with long, unsheathed knives and short lives. Two years, maximum, he predicts and Israel is back at the polls.
I tend to agree.
1) A good friend of mine in Canada, who is also a constitutional law scholar, points out that on very rare occasions in recent decades two Canadian prime ministers have made direct appointments to Cabinet of non-elected officials. So, my comments regarding this not ever happening in Canada, UK, Australia, NZ are not entirely accurate but such occurrences are rare and intended to manage specific and urgent political issues. Apologies for the misstatement.